Review: Henry VIII: Man And Monarch @ British Library

By M@ Last edited 117 months ago
Review: Henry VIII: Man And Monarch @ British Library

Wow, you can see how he attracted six wives.

The BL's new exhibition is monstrous, glorious and lavishly overweight, much like the king it celebrates. The life and times of Henry VIII are laid out in a sprawling Hampton-Court-maze of artifacts, letters and portraits. Guest curator David Starkey has ensured that every document of relevance - from love letters to hate mail - finds its place in this swollen Tudor exposition. This is what happens when you get an academic to arrange an exhibition in a library.

People who like this kind of thing (and if not, why not?) will quiver like a Tudor paunch to see what's on show: an actual Coverdale Bible, the first complete printed Bible in English; the letter announcing Elizabeth I's birth where you can see the word 'prince' converted to 'princess'; Cranmer's letter following Catherine Howard's confession of adultery, before she lost her head; missives written by Henry, Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn; Henry's own notes on the commentary of Leviticus, where he convinces himself his marriage to Katherine is invalid; a contemporary copy of the Act of Supremacy itself; and Henry and Katherine's marriage treaty...

Paperwork aside, the exhibition also brings together portraits, maps, tapestries and tomb effigies, to give a more visual impression of 16th Century court life. The resulting ensemble is both exhausting and exhaustive. We'd suggest familiarising yourself with the material beforehand, by watching Starkey's excellent Channel 4 series, which follows a similar narrative. Unlike most BL exhibitions, this one charges a hefty entrance fee, so you'll want to make the most of it. Set aside at least three hours.

Henry VIII: Man And Monarch opens 23 April at the British Library. Tickets £9.

Words by M@ Brown and Rachel Holdsworth, picture by someone a bit older.

Last Updated 22 April 2009